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Kung Fu Panda

By Cole Haddon | Posted 6/4/2008

If you love martial-arts movies, particularly the Shaw Brothers productions of the 1960s and '70s, then you'll probably smirk through most of Kung Fu Panda, the latest attempt by Dreamworks Animation to live up to the standards of its Shrek trilogy. Po the panda (voiced by Jack Black) is a low-drive, highly ambitious soup vendor living in the Valley of Peace, a tranquil community unthreatened since the murderous snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) was imprisoned 20 years ago. Of course, Tai Lung is about to escape and ruin all that tranquility. The kung fu school's Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), a tortoise Yoda who's already envisioned this threat, must now choose the Dragon Warrior from his school, the perfect student who will learn the secrets of unlimited power from the fabled Dragon Scroll. However, just as Oogway's about to pick Tigress (Angelina Jolie)--one of five students who represent the ancient forms of kung fu: tiger, monkey, mantis, snake, and crane--Po screws everything up by landing before Oogway's pointed finger. A fat, seemingly unintelligent panda who only kicks ass in his dreams must now save the Valley of Peace from the most dangerous kung fu warrior ever. Needless to say, this does not make the five students or their crotchety teacher, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), very happy, which means the traditional kung fu training sequence--with a field as elaborate as the school in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin--is actually an attempt by the students to drive the oblivious Po from the school.

The problem with Kung Fu Panda, though, is that unlike the Shrek movies--which satirized popular fairy tales and juxtaposed them with today's pop culture--Panda does nothing more than pay homage, often lazily, to the genre that inspired it. It's almost as if Po's adventure is channeling the bad direct-to-video 1980s American movies that Hong Kong cinema inspired, and most broad movie audiences--outside Quentin Tarantino and the Wu-Tang Clan--can't reference martial-arts flicks the way we all intimately know fairy tales. Worse, Panda's filmmakers ignore the narrative tropes that were so important in martial-arts movies, such as honor and chivalry, two concepts that aren't even touched upon here. The life lessons of kung fu are wholly unimportant in this kung fu adventure. Moreover, Panda's humor mostly comes from fat jokes and Black's dopey persona instead of the genre itself, except for an inspired chopstick sequence. The trailer, which incorporates Tomoyasu Hotei's "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" from Kill Bill, Vol. 1, sadly makes the movie look infinitely more fun and self-aware than it actually is.

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